After 20 years in the dog-walking business, Ryan Stewart says he’s not just a dog lover: he sees himself as one of the pack.
Stewart began her career in New York, Ryan for Dogs, in 2002 to earn money between meager acting jobs. Now, it’s his full-time job: He makes about $60 an hour walking three to five puppies at a time. Job guaranteed by a reputation built over several decades, Stewart earns up to $120,000 per year, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
“I don’t even consider myself a love dog, it’s just they’re almost like an extension,” Stewart tells CNBC Make It. “I don’t love my right hand, you know? It’s just there.”
Stewart, who is in her early 40s, says the best part of her job is that “without a college degree, I’ve managed to make six figures a year…doing something I love.” He works about 36 hours a week, spread out over six days, he says, noting that dogs require constant attention, which makes his six-hour shifts often feel demanding.
“A good dog walker is focused and attentive, because they want to keep their dog from getting hurt,” says Stewart. “You have to watch the traffic. You have to watch the dogs [so they] don’t fight each other. not one of those [jobs] that you can put on some AirPods and listen to music while you’re at it.”
Mistakes in his field are costly, says Stewart. Small lapses in concentration could get a dog’s tail caught in a door, potentially leading to a $2,000 vet bill.
But the benefits of spending her days with dogs, she says, outweigh the downsides. Here’s how she channeled her connection with dogs into a rewarding and lucrative day job:
A long road to profit
Growing up, Stewart’s brothers mowed the lawn and set the table for dinner. His task was to walk the family dogs. So when he started looking for professional dancing in New York when he was 20, he thought dog walking might be a natural side hustle.
“I remember standing on the street handing out business cards,” says Stewart. “I started with one or two dogs [for] half a year, before they became three or four.
After a couple of years, Stewart realized that dog walking could become more lucrative if it was her only goal. But it would be a long way to get there: Despite high demand in big cities, the average dog walker in New York earns $35,625 per year, according to ZipRecruiter.
Today, Stewart says he can earn more because people know his reputation: He charges $20 to $25 for each dog on a group walk. About half of his clients come from referrals, and the other half come from requests submitted on his website.
Those apps can stack up. Stewart says he is selective about the types of dogs and owners he works with, only responding to 10% of the requests he receives on his website.
“I do not [want] go back to the owner and say, ‘I don’t want to walk your dog anymore,'” she says. “If you bother them, they might write a bad review.”
Learning by trial and error
Stewart’s weekday schedule includes two to three hours of morning walks, a break to hydrate and take a nap, then another two to three hour shift at night. On Saturdays he works one to two hours. He takes almost every Sunday off.
Stewart has strict rules of the road when it comes to her business. He always wears his own gear, including leashes and four-foot collars, never harnesses.
“I like to be in control of the dog’s head,” he says. “If you have a dog in a harness and there’s a chicken bone in there and the dog is trying to grab it, the harness isn’t very effective at keeping the head from reaching down and grabbing it, but a collar will keep the dog from doing that.” it’s.”
Stewart says she does “group walks” because she feels it’s better for the dogs to interact with each other. He occasionally walks a few dogs off-leash, he adds: Sometimes it alarms owners, but Stewart says he can tell which dogs are better at paying attention, and in 20 years, he’s never had a dog hit by a car.
Some of Stewart’s methods can leave dog owners stumped, but he insists he learned through trial and error. He explains to each owner that his methods ultimately keep dogs safer, part of the reason he has built a strong reputation.
Pros and cons of dog walking
The job has multiple drawbacks, Stewart says. He pays for his own health insurance, doesn’t get paid vacations, and picks up a lot of poop.
The most challenging parts of her job involve dealing with dog owners. adds: Especially since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, their customers have raised their expectations. Many owners text Stewart to check in during walks, which is his favorite pet peeve: a distraction, when he should be focused on the dogs.
“The owners are getting more demanding and more crazy,” he says. “There are more cameras and there are more dog trackers. That’s challenging because you feel like people are looking over your shoulder all the time. It just makes it more stressful.”
Still, he says, the pandemic has given the pet industry a big boost: The more time you spend with your pets, the more likely you are to spend money on them. And since many dog owners are still tied to their laptops, even if they’re technically home on weekdays, they may need a dog walker.
In 2019, the pet industry was worth $97.1 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association. In 2021, it skyrocketed to $123.6 billion.
“I think the pet industry is a growth business because we don’t belong to groups as much as we used to,” says Stewart. “We don’t belong to book clubs or bowling leagues or knitting circles… People stay at home more, so where do they put their love and need to play? They do it with their cats and dogs.”
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